2015 Year in Review #2: Best Books

Top five books of 2015

the bearthewakeoutlineafterbirththedaysofabandon

Have I mentioned I’m in a bit of a slump this year? I read more than ever, and came home from Book Expo America with a bunch of hot new books, but only five books were good enough to get that elusive five-star rating. For fun, I’ve included the most ridiculous thing I did while reading each.

  • The Bear by Claire Cameron (tried to describe it to my husband while out for our sixth anniversary dinner, ended up crying)
  • The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (read the first forty or so pages aloud)
  • After Birth by Elisa Albert (… nothing much, but here’s a fun fact: Albert used to write the captions for A Baby Story, that ubiquitous 2000s-era Canadian reality show about birth. I hated that show because I had pretty traumatic deliveries, just like the main character in this book, and felt like it sugar-coated the truth. I guess Albert felt that way too?)
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk (spent a Saturday night reading it with a mug of mint tea and whisky. Not that crazy, except I never drink whisky and I never drink alone.)
  • The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (Told my family I was going to the grocery store, and read in the parking lot for an hour)

Yeah, but did I review them? Last year I was ashamed of the fact that I only reviewed one of my top ten books. I was also ashamed of the reason – I was afraid to write about race. I ended up reviewing The Bridge of Beyond in January and it is one of my favourite reviews. This year, I gave my all to The Bear – I didn’t do a traditional review, but I wrote about it here on the blog, and on 49th Shelf. I wrote a quick blurb on The Wake (but please note there is a 2,000+ word draft review in the works,) and nothing on the other three.

There isn’t anything in particular about After Birth, Outline, or The Days of Abandonment that made me skip the review. I’m not intimidated by the subject matter. I still think about them. I suppose that, compared to The Bear and The Wake, they are very specifically women’s stories (not for women… I mean about women, centred on women’s experiences, etc.) But I’m usually cool with that too.

Here’s my hypothesis: I read too damn much this year. I powered through all three of these books, because I had holds coming in at the library, and Book Expo books to get to before publication date (fail,) and a Forsyte Saga to get through before the end of the year (epic fail,) and an ever-growing pile of library sale books, and book swap books, and contest win books, and Canada Reads and Alberta Reader’s Choice and Giller Prize books. I had just enough time to register that hey, this book is amazing, before barreling on to the next.

Can you guess what’s coming next? Stay tuned for my 2016 plans post. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna KonMari my bookshelf or anything. KonMari is so 2015.

Honourable mentions where four stars on Goodreads means 4.5 or 4.9: Martin John by Anakana Schofield, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh.

Overrated Books

Undermajordomowheredyougocrazyrichcityonfire

Not “bad” books, so put your pitchforks away. These books did not live up to the hype.

  • Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt (my review) I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. I didn’t get it.
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: The Franzen blurb got my hopes up, but by the end, I was so exasperated with everyone and everything. Great audio book narrator, though.
  • Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan: This book is a total Monet: great fun while reading, but a big mess if you stop and think about it for too long. Not to mention the most boring protagonists ever.
  • City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallsberg: I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but when I wasn’t, I didn’t think of it for a moment. Hence I almost gave up twice. Sweet trailer, though.

And, finally, the 2015 Reading in Bed Book of the Year:

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth!

 

thewake

This is a surprise, even to me. From the time I read it in February, up until one minute ago, I was convinced that The Bear would be my book of the year. So, I guess I’d better tell you why it’s not.

But first, I’ll tell you why The Wake is. Briefly. Remember that 2,000 word draft I’ve got going? You’ll hear enough about it, in time. I chose it for my book of the year because:

It surprised me. I had no notion of picking it up at Book Expo America, until I happened to see this tweet, so I had no idea what I was in for.

It shook me. Us bloggers and book reviewers often say things like “heart-pounding” or “hair-raising” or “breath-taking,” but I tell you, as I read the last page of this book, every hair was on end, my heart was racing, and I was gasping.

It’s a technical wonder. Kingsnorth invented a language for this book. Enough said? Not quite. His “shadow tongue” is based on Old English, and so, he didn’t use any words that are not rooted in Old English. You know how so many English words are very similar to words in French or Spanish? Yeah, none of those words are in this book. Which isn’t just a fancy trick, given this is a story about Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Norman (or French) invasion.

It’s relevant. Historical fiction is such great fun because it’s so immersive. We imagine ourselves in another world. The Wake is like that, but it’s also hugely informative for someone living in a country colonized by the English and the French, to read about how the English were colonized by the French 1,000 years ago.

Buccmaster. Flawed, unreliable, tragic, brutal, a lost cause and a last hope. I didn’t read a more memorable character this year.

Check out Rosemary and Reading Glasses for a great review of The Wake if you can’t wait for mine.

As for The Bear, it is wonderful, powerful, and true. On reflection, though, there were some things that bothered me about the pacing towards the end, and some bits that felt emotionally manipulative. The Bear did change me, though, and it’s still my go-to CanLit recommendation. Oh, and Cameron just sold the rights to a new novel called The Last Neanderthal, about “the perils of motherhood at the end of the Neanderthal era” that’s billed as an updated The Clan of the Cave Bear and I cannot wait.

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29 comments

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    “(Told my family I was going to the grocery store, and read in the parking lot for an hour)” Wonderful! Spoken as a true bookaholic!

  2. The Paperback Princess

    I’m going to have to fight you on Crazy Rich Asians. Although, it’s not one that I spend tons of time thinking about, it is a book that I had so much fun reading.
    But I love that you told your family you were going grocery shopping and read in the parking lot.
    I guess we’re even.

    • lauratfrey

      You’re welcome. I didn’t even read the whole thing when I put the post up. I went back and read it, and it was very entertaining! I hope she does more books.

  3. Naomi

    Ooh,,, Claire Cameron’s new book sounds great! A Clan of the Cave Bear for the grown-up me. 🙂
    Yay for The Bear, Martin John, and Eileen – loved all of those. But, I have to confess that I’m one of the ones who didn’t get too excited about Outline. I got about half way through when I decided it wasn’t going to get any better for me and sent it back to the library. I just didn’t really care about what was happening.
    The other 3 5-star books are on my to-read list – looking forward to your long review of The Wake!
    I’ve done the grocery store thing, except for me it’s skipping band practice every once in a while to go somewhere and read instead. Not very often, though, because I like band. 🙂

    • lauratfrey

      Oh yeah, I’ve done that, skipped a yoga class or something. Usually to do some blog writing. It’s hardest to find the time for writing, I find. I can kind of read while kids are screaming at me, but I can’t write 🙂

      • Naomi

        That’s true.
        It’s hard for me to write when the kids are around, because they are usually hogging the computer. 🙂

  4. Elle

    Buccmaster scared the everliving shit out of me when I read The Wake in August. I was expecting the language to be the stand-out of the book, but oh no; it was the way Kingsnorth makes his protagonist so terrifyingly, megalomaniacally unreliable. You suspect he’s done some less than savoury things in his life, but the slow, creepy reveal, and the way he loses his temper more and more violently as the book goes on… I was gasping too, by the end.

    • lauratfrey

      I also liked how he started out saying he wouldn’t talk about his dad, meanwhile, continuing to talk about his dad. At first, it made me wonder “what did your dad do to you?” but later, “what did you do to your dad?”

      • Elle

        Exactly! Not to mention his sister, although he talked about her right from the beginning in terms that made me think “you’re weird, this is weird…”

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  8. Stefanie

    I had The Wake from the library, started reading it, loved it, had to return it because of hold requests, bought myself a copy and haven’t picked it up since. Argh! I will definitely be reading it this year and am very much looking forward to the experience

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